Off the record

One of the best lines of Animal House, sanitized here for your enjoyment: "You screwed up. You trusted me."

In a world where everyone owns a media channel, I guess that makes us all journalists. Journalists have more power than ordinary folks, because they can spread a message farther and faster. The question is, what sort of long-term choices are you going to make in your career as an amateur journalist?

Seymour Hersh has won a Pulitzer Prize for his hard-hitting coverage of the Pentagon, and one reason he’s able to break big stories is because his sources know that they won’t get busted for talking to him. The reason? He doesn’t reveal them. There’s no doubt that he could make a huge splash by writing, "Colin Powell told me…" but of course, if he did that, burned a source that spoke to him off the record, he’d never be trusted again.

I end all my emails with a sig that says, "This note is off the record (blogs, too) unless we agree otherwise." I don’t do this because I have something to hide, I do it because it makes it easier to have a human-to-human conversation. If I believe I’m talking on the record, to everyone, I need to be a lot more careful in what I type. Of course, there’s no way for me to enforce this. No way for me to sue you or something if you start taking my words (in context or not) and post them here and there. Except for one: I just won’t trust you again. And in fact, neither will your other readers. [Blogs, profiles, and tweets of course, are out there for anyone who wants to borrow or share them.]

Go to a party and take embarrassing pictures of your friends to post on Facebook. That’s fun, certainly, but it’s possible that you won’t be quite as trusted next time.

Take that email your boss sent to the six people in your group and post it anonymously to some web gossip site… wanna bet your boss is a lot more careful about telling you and your peers the truth next time?

The good news is that we all need to act as if we’re on camera… behavior ought to improve. The bad news is that it’s harder to trust people we might have expected to be more discreet or engaged.

There’s a giddy history of amateurs using the web to build up scandal sheets and generate traffic by violating the trust of their friends and colleagues. What’s clear is that this isn’t a long term strategy for success. When in doubt, ask first. Maybe your source doesn’t mind. Maybe you misunderstood the intent of the original message. Trust is really valuable and equally fragile.

You can fool us once, but probably not twice.